By: Cassie Miller
Nestled in his handler’s chest with his long arms wrapped around her torso like a baby hanging tight to its mother, Bean the Sloth has it made. A soft smile and a sleepy stare is all Bean could muster after a long morning meeting 285 guests at Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville.
The long line of visitors waited eagerly to meet Bean and hear his message of rainforest conservation. Handler Hannah Beville, a conservation educator, intern and animal program coordinator answered as many questions as she could about Linnaeus’ two-toed sloths like Bean.
Bean is an animal ambassador at the zoo, serving as a member of his species’ SSP or Species Survival Plan. SSPs are a preventative action used by AZA-accredited zoos to monitor wildlife populations. Noticing habitat loss and deforestation in the region of the rainforest where sloths live, an SSP was put in place to protect Linnaeus’ two-toed sloths and educate the public about these creatures and their habitat.
It sounds like grueling work, but Bean makes it look easy. The ambassador has more than 1,000 followers on Instagram, making him a veritable star. The celebrity knows how to dodge the paparazzi, avoiding prying-eyes by traveling around the zoo in an incognito carrier.
In his spare time, Bean has a few hobbies that include sleeping for 18 hours a day and painting. Yes, that’s right – painting. “He’s no Picasso, but he can do a really nice dot and a really nice dash,” laughs Beville.
And make no mistake, Bean does things according to his schedule, not the zoo’s. Beville leans in close to a perch, encouraging Bean to climb up, but doesn’t force him to move from his hugging embrace. “We don’t make our animals do anything,” emphasizes Beville.
Chowing down on a diet of fruits and veggies, Bean is served food that wouldn’t normally be found in his native habitat, but is a good source of vitamins and essential nutrients for the 7-year-old sloth. To put that in perspective, in captivity, sloths have a life expectancy of up to 40 years!
Bean’s life sounds lavish, but remember he serves an important purpose to his wild cousins. While Linnaeus’ two-toed sloths are not currently threatened or endangered, deforestation and habitat and encroachment could have a devastating effect on the species’ numbers.
“We encourage people, when we talk about Bean, to make the simple switch from regular coffee and chocolate beans to shade-grown coffee and chocolate beans,” Beville says. “Coffee and chocolate have to grow in the specific environment that the rainforest has, so we go in and deforest the rainforest, which is a major problem for a lot of different animals, especially sloths.”
Shade-grown coffee and chocolate is easily obtained. Beville and her team at Lehigh Valley Zoo recommend Café Christina. They even hand it out to guests to jump start the dialogue about rainforest conservation and sustainability. Hint: If you’re looking for a shade-grown brand in your local grocery store, look for the Rainforest Alliance seal.
“We can make these simple consumer choices in the grocery store and it makes a big difference for the animals that live in the wild,” Beville says.
So, while humans work to protect the rainforest and educate the world about the amazing animals that depend on it, Bean, who’s now fallen asleep by this part in the interview, can relax having educated the masses. For this sloth, it’s all in a day’s work.
Fun Fact: Sloths are their own eco-systems! They will grow moss and algae in their fur, creating small eco-systems for other animals. There are species of moths and other insects that lay eggs solely in the fur of sloths, making protecting these creatures even more crucial!